DIARY OF AN INVASION
by Andrey Kurkov (Mountain Leopard £16.99, 304pp)
History is playing out before our eyes — that’s why this very current book on Ukraine’s struggle against Putin’s Russia tops my History list. It’s also because, as we learn from this personal account of the war by one of Ukraine’s leading intellectuals, the past plays a huge part in what is happening today. This is a clash of cultures — individualism and freedom versus meek conformity to whatever the Kremlin dictates — that’s been a long time in the making.
Andrey Kurkov is a writer, not a soldier. His diary does not chronicle battles and air strikes but movingly conveys the soul of a people who never wanted this war but who are more, not less, defiant because of the invader’s atrocities.
‘Heaven and Hell have taken concrete form,’ he writes. ‘Hell is Mariupol, Bucha, Hostomel, Vorzel and the many other destroyed cities, towns and villages. Paradise is these same places before the war. Hell is now a specific place on the map with its own capital — Moscow. It is the greatest misfortune for any state to have a common border with Hell.’
The irony is not lost that Kurkov is Russianborn, Ukrainian by adoption. For the land of his birth he now feels only hate.
Exiles: Wallis, Duchess of Windsor with the Duke in Nassau in the Bahamas in 1942
by Max Hastings (William Collins £30, 576pp)
The war in Ukraine also adds immediacy to this superb re-telling of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, a previous occasion when a madcap Russian leader chanced his arm and, convinced in his own mind the West would back down, took the world to the brink of nuclear war.
Drawing on tapes of the heated discussions between the ‘nuke ’em’ hawks and the ‘softly softly’ doves inside JFK’s White House on how to respond to Khrushchev’s arming of Cuba with nuclear missiles, Hastings shows how terrifyingly close humanity came to annihilation.
And although we know the outcome was benign, you can feel the tension of November 1962 — and just pray it isn’t going to happen again 60 years later. How did that Pete Seeger protest song go — when will they ever learn?
What troubles Hastings (and me) most is the realisation it only takes a minor misstep or misunderstanding by a panicky individual on the front line for the first button to be pressed. The missiles fly, and there’s no turning back.
THE DIARIES OF HENRY ‘CHIPS’ CHANNON 1943-57 (Hutchinson £35, 1,168pp)
THE REIGN: LIFE IN ELIZABETH’S BRITAIN
by Matthew Engel (Atlantic £25, 640pp)
The laid-back aristocratic Tory prime minister, Alec Douglas-Home, was home alone one evening in the 1960s when the doorbell rang. He answered it and there stood two Lefty students who announced that they’d come to kidnap him.
‘I suppose you realise,’ he told them in his unmistakeable upper-class drawl, ‘that if you do, the Conservatives will win the general election by 200 to 300 seats.’ Then he invited them in for a beer, before they departed in peace.
It’s a telling anecdote from Matthew Engel’s saga showing just how much Britain changed during the late Queen’s reign. Was there really a time when a PM wasn’t surrounded by ‘security’ and opened his own front door? Or a time when Left-wing students could be persuaded by common sense and reason to back down?
It’s easy to be seduced by a nostalgic ‘those were the days’ feeling, but ‘those days’ were also hard almost beyond our imagining. In 1952, when Elizabeth became Queen, the country was bankrupt, poverty was real, housing was appalling. This was a nation on its knees. It did get better. Not perfect, but better. We are prone to forget that. Engel’s book is volume one of two, reaching 1979 and the arrival at No10 of Mrs Thatcher.
COLDITZ: PRISONERS OF THE CASTLE
by Ben Macintyre (Viking £25, 384pp)
There is oodles of bulldog spirit, too, in this un-putdownable account of Germany’s most famous prisoner-of-war camp. Macintyre has a genius for taking war stories that seem familiar and breathing new life into them. He did it with Agent Zigzag and Operation Mincemeat and he’s done it again, better than ever, in Colditz.
The escapers’ stories are told with great style, verve and brio but there is also something new here, a different perspective, as he pricks the bubble of unbridled heroism and exposes the other side of life inside the formidable fortress — farce, insanity, tragedy, boredom, bullying. And Douglas Bader.
He was Colditz’s most famous prisoner (thanks to his lack of legs and his own self-promotion), but also a loud-mouthed tartar, an insufferable egotist and a pompous show-off who treated everyone else like dirt. Including the poor Scottish orderly who carried him on his back up and down the castle’s steep stairs every day and got not a word of thanks.
TRAITOR KING by Andrew Lownie (Blink £10.99, 432pp)
THE WORLD: A FAMILY HISTORY
by Simon Sebag Montefiore (Weidenfeld £35, 1,344pp)
This is not just an undoubted book of the year but of many years. You’d be hard put to get through its more than 1,250 pages and 55 chapters (with a bibliography of 125-plus pages online) in one reading so put it on the shelf and dip into it. Why? Because it’s a treasure trove of marvellous stories, brilliantly researched and absorbingly told, fascinating characters who leap off the pages but, above all, the thing missing most in our troubled, selfabsorbed society — perspective.
This is a history of the world, told uniquely through families and dynasties, from the Pharaoh Khufu in 2600 BC to Donald Trump more than four and a half millennia later.
It was Khufu who had the Great Pyramid built at Giza, which at 481ft high was the tallest building on Earth until the Eiffel Tower. That’s what I mean by perspective — putting us in our place.
There is nothing new under the sun — one of the themes running throughout world history, according to one of the author’s many intriguing footnotes, is ‘the everpresent fear of the world’s end’, felt as strongly back in 2000 BC (when floods were the threat in the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh) as it is today.
THE DIARIES OF HENRY ‘CHIPS’ CHANNON 1943-57
(Hutchinson £35, 1,168pp)
Dipping in is also a good option with another massive volume, the diaries of MP, bon vivant and supreme high-society gossip ‘Chips’ Channon. Wherever you alight in its 1,000-plus pages, you are wooed into a world of upper-class intrigue and indiscretions, played out in Westminster, Belgravia and snooty country mansions.
Politics and parties (of all kinds, orgies included) compete for his and our attention, with the parties, the chat, the self-indulgence, along with his rickety and colourful love life, winning by a mile.
Chips knew everyone — everyone that mattered, that is, the rich, the famous, the ruling class. He even liked some of them but most are subjected to his withering verdicts. The Duke of Wellington is dismissed as ‘very common’, Anthony Eden, a PM-to-be, is ‘a silly old doll’, the young Princess Elizabeth ‘already a little pompous and a bore’.
He misses nothing with his grade-A gossip: the exiled Duchess of Windsor ‘has begun to go to nightclubs with young men; the Duke is still infatuated but wretched’ (see below). Celebrities flit through the pages — Ivor Novello (‘Ivy’ to the gay community), Noel Coward (‘talked mainly about himself’), Gielgud, Olivier, Redgrave. Kings too, of Greece and Yugoslavia.
So too do Channon’s lovers — chiefly Peter Coats (known as ‘Bunny’) and the playwright Terence Rattigan (who based The Deep Blue Sea on their relationship) but also the unnamed ones he gives a passing nod to as ‘voluptuous sport’ and ‘illicit love’.
HELLFIRE: EVELYN WAUGH AND THE HYPOCRITES CLUB by David Fleming (History Press, £20, 288pp)
It’s a wonder he ever found the time to actually write it all down but we should be glad he did.
by Andrew Lownie (Blink £10.99, 432pp)
In 1953, the exiled Duke of Windsor (once, briefly, King) was allowed back into Britain for the funeral of his mother, Queen Mary. To his wife, Wallis, deliberately not invited, back in Paris he wrote: ‘What a smug, stinking lot my relations are; you’ve never seen such a seedy, worn-out bunch of old hags.’
Now this really was a royal family at war — the vituperation so intense and so personal that it reduces today’s spats between princes to a minor squabble over the garden wall.
At war too in the sense that the Windsors had an unnerving liking for Hitler and the Nazis — ‘pretty much fifth column’ was a widely held opinion of them — and were far from averse to seeing Britain defeated if it meant he’d get back his throne and she’d be Queen.
For the duration of the war, they were ushered off to the Bahamas — not exactly a hardship posting but, to them, as they plotted and moaned, it was ‘Elba’. And afterwards they wandered the world — exiles with nothing to do but nurse their resentments.
Lownie expertly captures the extravagance (they never travelled with fewer than 73 pieces of luggage), the sense of entitlement, the snobbery, the vanity, the selfpity, the bone-idle laziness, the fundamental uselessness of their lives as outcasts. ‘I never saw a man so bored,’ said one acquaintance. Should this be required reading in a certain household in Montecito, California?
HELLFIRE: EVELYN WAUGH AND THE HYPOCRITES CLUB
by David Fleming (History Press, £20, 288pp)
They were the jeunesse doree of the post-World War I generation, pretentious (and privileged) aesthetes, intellectuals and pseuds congregating together in an Oxford otherwise populated by philistines and hearties. As one of them, Harold Acton, explained: ‘Now the war was over, those who loved beauty had a mission to combat ugliness.’
This high-mindedness was real enough but also an excuse for outof-control boozing, dressing up outrageously and lots of boy-on-boy snogging (and more). Hence the Hypocrites Club.
Evelyn Waugh was a leading light and memorably re – created the libertines and wastrels who were its members in Brideshead Revisited.
They treated Oxford and its hedonistic delights as an experience rather than an education and most left with poor degrees (Thirds for Waugh and Anthony Powell) or none at all (John Betjeman). Not that this held them back from successful careers, to which the bulk of this book is devoted.
They stuck together as a loose literary set, though how much historical significance this has is debatable. But their louche, some would say loutish, habits as undergraduates make for entertaining reading.
Hellfire? Not really. Their antics were more silly than satanic.
THE TICKET COLLECTOR FROM BELARUS
by Mike Anderson and Neil Hanson (Simon & Schuster £20, 384pp)
Nobody gave a second glance at the sour-faced ticket collector at busy London Bridge railway station. Nor did he look up from underneath his peaked cap as he ushered the tide of humanity through the gates.
He kept his dreadful secret to himself — that years before, in Nazi-occupied eastern Europe, he had similarly herded people… to their deaths.
Andrei Sawoniuk was an SS auxiliary who had rounded up Jews in his native Belorussia and butchered men, women and children in cold blood before tossing their bodies into mass graves.
After the war he slipped away from the scene of his crimes against humanity, ending up in Britain where he settled into a mundane job and, he hoped, an escape for ever from his guilty past.
This thoroughly absorbing and astonishing book recounts how he lay hidden for more than half a century, until he was eventually tracked down and brought to justice in this country’s one and only war crimes trial.
He wasn’t an instigator of the Holocaust by any means but he was a willing participant, and for that — Russian soldiers in Ukraine, please note — he was finally held to account.
by Sinclair McKay (Viking £20, 464pp)
If there was a focal point for the history of the 20th century, then Berlin was it. The city had a central role in all the century’s defining conflicts: both World Wars and the Cold War. Its citizens endured, in the words of Sinclair McKay, ‘an unending series of revolutions, a maelstrom of turmoil and insecurity’. And yet it survives.
It didn’t look that way in 1945 as Allied bombs reduced it to rubble and Soviet soldiers raped, slaughtered and pillaged, exacting revenge on the ordinary people of Hitler’s Germany for their years of complicity.
With unburied bodies strewn through its streets and mass suicides by Berliners who saw no future for themselves, its fate seemed to encapsulate ‘all the nihilist horror of that sad century — mass death without meaning on an unimaginable scale’.
And then, split in two, it became the pressure point for a new confrontation between Moscow and the West. If the world was going to end with a bang, the first sparks might well be here.
McKay, a stylish writer, tells all this with great understanding, his research extensive, his observations profound.